Meet Dr. Smith!

Computational Thinking Informed Science Pedagogy for Middle and High School Students

Exploring new approaches to science education in the age of computational technology

By Indranil Choudhury

Note: Quotes from interviews edited for length and clarity.


Dr. Sunyata Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Middle and High School Science Education program at her CUNY college. Dr. Smith began her career as a scientist, and then transitioned to working in education as a Teach for America corps member, teaching 6th and 7th grade science for schools in Brooklyn and Harlem.

Having worked extensively in education, offering professional development, volunteering for science camps, and designing curriculum for STEM nonprofits, she joined higher education to train the next generation of teacher candidates. 

“As a teacher-educator, I am innovative, creative, and compassionate. I’m a big believer in social emotional learning. I look at myself as a friend and not necessarily a teacher.”

Dr. Smith’s current research interests include integrating mindfulness into higher education through a framework known as contemplative pedagogy. She’s also interested in exploring how principles of design thinking, a non-linear, iterative approach to articulating and solving problems, might translate to classroom learning experiences. 

She’s always looking for new ways to express herself creatively, which often involves teaching herself new tools and technologies like design, animation, and 3D modeling. Most recently, she received a PSC CUNY grant to research how engaging teachers in game design could support their learning and pedagogy. 

“I’m willing to take risks. When you roll out new technology with students, you better know how to troubleshoot. My personal willingness and drive to tinker with these things takes away the fear of incorporating them.”

What did Dr. Smith design during her CITE summer?

Dr. Smith designed a series of in-class assignments that progressively introduced teacher candidates to the possibilities of incorporating computational thinking principles in high school science lessons. Students first learnt about the relevance of computational thinking in K12 science classrooms, exploring the increasingly significant roles of computation in scientific inquiry today, from how we gather information using sensors and network infrastructures, to how we model and generate data to predict complex phenomena. 

Students then did an in-class group “unplugged” (off-screen) exercise to find out how computational thinking works in practice. They then moved on to analyzing existing science lesson plans designed by Digital Promise and Northwestern University that incorporate computational thinking, before designing their own lesson plans. For the final step, students were asked to record themselves teaching the lesson they designed, and presented the recording to their peers for feedback. 

Dr. Smith’s CITE artifact outlines a step by step progression faculty can apply to introduce new pedagogical concepts to teacher candidates — explore, apply, analyze, create, iterate.

Dr. Smith’s “Why” for CITE

Dr. Smith describes herself as an avid learner of new technology, so having an environment to formally reflect on some of her own digital and computational practices was a natural fit. She frequently uses technology to express herself creatively, usually in the form of visual art. She’s not afraid to get immersed into learning new tools, which she teaches herself by watching YouTube tutorials and tinkering. 

In the past, she has researched the relevance of techniques from the world of design thinking and game design in education, so CITE’s research was of natural interest to her. 

Dr. Smith’s Context

Dr. Smith’s primary goal for this class and others is to support her graduate students – most of them secondary STEM or humanities teachers – as they think collaboratively about how to center the needs of their students. Participants focus on classroom management, watch videos of effective teaching practices as exemplars, and interrogate the science curriculum provided to them by the Department of Education.

Dr. Smith’s students come from very different backgrounds, with the vast majority of them being career changers and not traditional education students. Many participants are mature students with families and children. Classes are ethnically and racially diverse, and contain students with varying life experiences. Students’ digital literacies also vary, though most are proficient with some tools that they use regularly like those they use for making presentations. Incorporating more interactive modalities, such as tools like Padlet, Jamboard and Canvas sometimes requires additional instruction and time.

“I make it a collaborative environment where they feel free to share their experiences. I try to have student discourse, and be student led, especially for the later years – you tell me what you need to be successful to be a teacher. It may look different from semester to semester.“

Dr. Smith’s artifact

Dr. Smith designed a series of in-class assignments that progressively introduced teacher candidates to the possibilities of incorporating computational thinking principles in high school science lessons.

Activities In A Nutshell

Learn ABOUT Computing in Secondary Science

Dr. Smith set up the context to reflect on how the broad discipline of science has been influenced by technological change, specifically the role of computation in science based inquiry, and how that affects K12 science education.

Tinker WITH Unplugged Activities

Dr. Smith introduced the idea of an “unplugged activity”, in other words an activity that doesn’t involve using computers, to explore some of the concepts of computational thinking. Her students tried the viral dance moves activity, described in detail in the Activity Highlights section below.

Go Under the Hood THROUGH Analyzing and Creating CT Lesson Plans

By making students prepare and present an actual lesson, Dr. Smith empowered her students to work through the challenges of incorporating CT across content areas in a real-life classroom scenario.

Stand AGAINST uncritical trends

In viral dance moves activity, students considered the dangers of cultural appropriation in online trends.

What did Dr. Smith member learn through implementation?

Dr. Smith reflected on the need to maintain a student centered approach throughout this process. From her own experience, she felt that going in with a lecturing mindset was not going to work as it wouldn’t take the contexts of individual students into account. She was also pleasantly surprised at teacher candidates from the art and language departments responding very positively to some of these ideas. 

“It was exciting to see how different students conceptualized it differently. I figured the STEM students would easily see the benefit of incorporating computational thinking into their work, but looking at how important the English educators felt it was, particularly when teaching students how to break down a text and analyze it, was very exciting. And then an art teacher thought about utilizing it in the art world, using an example of how students might decompose an abstract artwork and learn to put it back together.”

Dr. Smith stresses the importance of the right way to introduce these ideas to faculty and teacher candidates. It is important not to present any of this like arbitrarily assigning additional work, but to really appeal to students’ curiosities about their own subjects and disciplines. Finally, one-size fits all solutions should be avoided in favor of context specific suggestions that play to a teacher candidate’s strengths.

“Knowing where your students are on this is the key. A lot of our students really don’t have a background on any of this. It is important to give faculty members what they need to be successful, and to understand the varying levels of the students.”

Where do they want to go next?

Dr. Smith runs a professional learning community at her CUNY college where she works with her colleagues to incorporate contemplative pedagogy into their classrooms. She continues to work closely with CITE to further her research interests in computational and digital literacies and looks forward to working closely with her students to shape the future of education. 

“It’s important for our teachers to be educated in these areas and to see their importance for themselves. This information needs to trickle down to students. When you are thinking about educating 21st century thinkers and innovators, that starts with teacher educators.”

Activities Highlights

Learn ABOUT Computing in Secondary Science

Dr. Smith began by contextualizing the principles of computational thinking and its methods as they relate to science based inquiry today. Drawing upon her experience as a scientist, researcher, and science educator in both secondary schools and higher education, she facilitated a discussion about how scientific research has evolved over time. 

Dr. Smith adapted a resource from STEM Teaching Tools (McGowan, Klein, Morrison, 2019) to articulate the following rationale behind this activity: research methods have changed radically due to the advent of computers and computer aided tools and technologies. The differences range from how we are able to collect and generate data using sensors and networked infrastructures, to how we interpret, model, and analyze information using programming and other techniques to predict complex phenomena. K-12 science classrooms provide natural contexts for students to engage in computational thinking practices during their investigations.

With this context in mind, students were split into small groups to research the concept of computational thinking, and how it relates to science in general and secondary science education in particular. All the groups made short presentations on their findings. 
Dr. Smith also made it an explicit priority to center teacher candidates’ values and experiences by framing this entire activity within the perspective of values driven computing. Rather than thinking of ideas like computational thinking in the abstract, students took the CS education Visions Quiz to have their own priorities inform their research.   

“They were able to come to their own understanding and convince themselves of the importance of [CT]. It was pretty great listening to their presentations, and going, ‘Oh, wow! I never thought about this.’“

Tinker WITH Unplugged Activities

After a thorough and rigorous but self-directed conceptual exploration of computational thinking, Dr. Smith wanted her students to apply some of these ideas in practice. She curated a series of resources that introduced teacher candidates to “unplugged” activities — activities that don’t require the use of computers. These hands-on activities frequently involve students working with readily available materials like paper, pens, craft supplies, etc. 

Unplugged activities help integrate computational literacies across disciplines by not restricting activities to any particular software or hardware, but foregrounding the underlying principles at play instead. They are an effective way to break the monotony of traditional instruction with kinesthetic challenges that engage senses that are sometimes dormant in classrooms, like touch, taste, and smell. 

Students worked in groups again to do an unplugged activity themselves — the ‘viral dance move’, which Dr. Smith had herself done as part of her CITE Summer Professional Learning. As part of the activity, students decompose a dance into a sequence of instructions by identifying recurring patterns within the dance. 

As they try  to translate physical gestures into a series of instructions communicable by language, students encounter missed steps and have to debug the problems with their solutions.

By learning WITH unplugged activities, Dr. Smith’s students were empowered to design their own unplugged activities that would make sense within the context of their future classrooms. 

Go Under the Hood THROUGH Analyzing and Creating CT Lesson Plans

Integrating computational thinking into secondary science education isn’t a new idea. Dr. Smith designed the next few steps of her assignment to help her students make the most of existing resources that were  already available. It can be overwhelming to navigate information on the internet, so Dr. Smith pointed students to two resources that explicitly focus on integrating computational thinking across STEM curriculum. 

The first resource was CT-STEM, a research group based in Northwestern University conducting a Design-Based Implementation Research project to study a model in which computational literacy curricula are embedded throughout required biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics coursework. CT-STEM provides teachers with over 50 curricular units that integrate computational thinking within disciplinary content.

The second resource was the lesson library by Digital Promise, a non-profit with an emphasis on integrating computational thinking in schools. 

By having access to a ready list of curricular plans across different subjects, Dr. Smith’s students could analyze concrete, real-world examples, seeing what it meant to augment science lessons with computational thinking principles. They considered how the following, seemingly disparate lessons from different subjects all taught students CT principles like decomposition, abstraction and modeling.

  • a physics lesson on the simple harmonic motion exhibited by pendulums 
  • a chemistry lesson that teaches you how to make fizzy drinks
  • a biology lesson on the excretory system
  • an environmental science unit on water quality and nitrate pollution

By recognizing the cross curricular nature of these principles, students could begin to find innovative ways to incorporate CT into their own lessons across disciplines. Instead of having students merely observe the available content, Dr. Smith had them present carefully prepared feedback on three lesson plans of their choice. Students were asked to remark on each lesson’s goals, objectives, structure,  instructional strategies, activities, technology applications, and assessment techniques.

As students dove into creating their own lessons, they were also encouraged to highlight all relevant standards applicable to their units — including the New York State Science Learning Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.   

“My class made meaningful connections between computational thinking and their own learning, recognizing its significance in incorporating it into various content areas. Their design of lesson plans effectively incorporated it, which in turn, will empower their students with the understanding and practical use of computational thinking.”

Implementation observation notes logged by Dr. Smith
Stand AGAINST uncritical trends

Students consider the viral dance moves unplugged activity through the lenses of equity and critical thinking, reflecting on the politics of the nature of virality on the internet, and how it leads to, in this case, dance moves originating in Black culture being practiced in a culturally disconnected way.